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The first-time CEO: permission to be new – you have 90 days

Part one of an eight-part practical guide for leaders stepping into the role of CEO for the first time.

By Sally Henderson, Leadership Mentor

This piece discusses a powerful asset that goes unused by most new CEOs and gives you five practical ways to harness it. 

The power of new

There’s a power available to all first time CEOs that often goes untapped. 

Being new. 

When you are new in a role you have a unique but limited window to see things with fresh eyes.  

But here’s the thing, most leaders, especially those in the role of the first-time CEO, want to push through the ‘new’ phase as soon as possible.

Why? Because being new in any situation, let alone at the top, can be extremely uncomfortable, stressful and exposing.

But new only becomes the baddie when you fear it. Fear new and you feed your imposter syndrome big time; embrace it and it becomes your friend, ally, and supporter. 

Being new permits you to not know all the answers, be curious, and listen and observe. It allows you to bring an outside perspective (even in an internal move) and ask for lots of help.

But there’s a catch, you only get to be new once and for a finite time.

Here’s how to make the most of it:

Five tips to harness the power of new

  1. Actively embrace being new 

When you are the new person in the CEO seat, it’s unsettling no matter how impressive your track record and reputation. 

The move from senior established expert to CEO is a big step. Openly acknowledge this and welcome the feeling of not knowing as a helpful part of transitioning. This will switch your narrative to adventure and growth from worry and anxiety.

  1. Plan your internal onboarding 

You know about formal onboarding, but there’s also an onboarding that happens deep inside your mind. 

Create a plan as to how you will personally and emotionally manage your immersion into a new culture and role. How do you want to feel on Day 1, Week 1, Week 2, and by Month 1, 2, and 3? A clear path will keep your wellbeing on track and make demanding change more manageable.

  • Audit your emotions

Examine how you truly feel about your new status. Write down your core three to five emotions. For each, decide, “Will this feeling help or hinder me?” If its the latter swap it out for the positive opposite. Check-in with this updated list of feelings as you progress.

I used this method with a superb leader about to take on their first formal CEO role in a high-profile business. Their dominant feeling before day one was anxiety (this is natural). I asked them to replace this with a positive emotion. They chose excitement. 

What do you think the difference was as to how they connected with their team on their first day? Just by working through this simple exercise, this first-time CEO was able to relax into being new rather than being unnecessarily stressed.

  • Use the ‘The 3 Bullets’ from The Real Method

List three core outcomes that you want your ‘audience’ to both think and feel about you in the role of CEO. Use two words for your new company as a whole and then tailor the third to fit a more targeted group, i.e. your senior leadership team, the whole team, the clients/external stakeholders etc. 

Your list might look like this: connected, inspired, reassured.

Through consciously pre-designing the outcome and impact you want to have as a CEO, you are giving your subconscious mind a map. This clarity provides confidence and increases the probability that you will create the desired thoughts or feelings in those with whom you engage. 

When this thinking isn’t done, the opposite happens. The gremlins come out to play instead – classic ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’. Your audience instinctively picks up on your internal fears instead. We are all instinctive beings after all.

  1. Leave your ego at the door 

The ego is an extremely hungry beast that when left untamed causes damage. Rather than let your ego take the lead, focus on the levers in your leadership that will serve to connect, inspire, guide and give strength. Do you clearly know what these leadership levers are as you move into being a CEO for the first time? Some will be the same as before, some new, and, very importantly, some levers need to be left behind as they won’t be effective at your new level of seniority.

Being a first-time CEO is such a wonderful achievement. One to relish, enjoy and truly celebrate. The next edition in the First-time CEO series covers the forgotten ceremony that will transform your performance as a new CEO. 

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